Ashlee Prewitt ’14 believes every anchor institution in a college town should aim for three big events each year: one athletic, one social and one centered on community service.
When she arrived in Cortland three years ago from the Midwest, Prewitt quickly learned about SUNY Cortland’s annual Cortaca Jug football game, the College’s biggest sports rivalry, and its Spring Fling concert, a marquee social event. She thought the area needed a student-led community service event capable of rising to the same level.
Enter the idea for the Big Event, a one-day volunteer project slated for Saturday, May 2, that aims to round up the efforts of SUNY Cortland students, employees and alumni. Volunteers are asked to give four hours of their time to community members or local organizations that need it the most.
It’s a day of service built on the concept of strength in numbers, to be held on the same day as the Cortland Downtown Partnership’s annual community clean-up.
“The idea behind the Big Event is that we can fold in any service project that students do,” said Prewitt, who transferred to Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) then SUNY Cortland from the University of Oklahoma, where a similar event took place in Norman, Okla. “It’s not necessarily about giving goods to the community, it’s about providing services.
“Instead of donating money or food, we’re saying: ‘What can we do for you?’”
Those jobs could include outdoor painting, trash and brush haul, mulching and gardening, hedge trimming or shoveling and raking.
Volunteers are asked to register for the event by Friday, April 3, so that Prewitt and other student organizers can match services with projects and purchase necessary supplies. Community members and groups should apply for assistance by the same date. There is no level of socioeconomic need required for service, so any individual person or organization can make a request. Examples might include a local non-profit agency, a group home for people with disabilities or simply an elderly couple in need of extra sets of hands for a few hours.
“Looking at the College’s Institute for Civic Engagement and service learning program, there’s a lot of evidence that students have the initiative to give back,” said Prewitt, who completed her bachelor’s degree in political science in December and will pursue a master’s in public administration at Binghamton University in the fall. “The question is: how can we give high visibility to that initiative?”
The Big Event is supported by $10,000 in funding from SUNY Cortland’s Student Government Association, funds that will be used to purchase supplies and equipment. Breakfast, t-shirts and bus transportation to job sites also will be provided to volunteers. They are asked to meet at Park Center Alumni Arena at 9 a.m. for their service assignments and a short kick-off ceremony.
Prewitt’s work on the Big Event goes back more than a year, when she interned in SUNY Cortland’s Research and Sponsored Programs Office. Her goal was to find a project within the community to which she could contribute.
“I thought there could be more direct overlap between students and residents,” she said.
Texas A&M University came up with the concept of the Big Event more than 30 years ago. There’s no national organization or governing structure for the Big Event, although dozens of colleges and universities across the nation have followed through with similar days of service.
The president of the College’s Non-Traditional Student Organization (NTSO), Prewitt enlisted the resources of the group that exists for undergraduates who are at least 24 years old or have had an interruption or delay in their education since high school. She currently leads a team of eight student volunteers who are handling tasks such as recruitment and job site visits for The Big Event.
They’ve received endorsements and support from the NTSO, the College’s Institute for Civic Engagement and government officials in the City of Cortland. Between SUNY Cortland’s Greek organizations and other student groups, Prewitt said a goal of 300 volunteers is attainable.
“There’s the potential to build a lot of community pride for the College, and vice versa,” she said.